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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Art and Science Hybrids

In Praise of Hybridity: Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank J Malina

By Roger Malina


My father was a hybrid. He achieved success in the 1940s as a scientist in the nascent field of astronautics, helping develop the theory of space flight and leading the team that launched the first human made object into outer space (1). As a pioneering kinetic artist in the 1950s he helped start the art and technology movement that has led to large industries in entertainment and cultural media.

In the 1960s he socialized with other hybrid artist-scientists such as artist and mathematician Anthony Hill, artist and bio-rheologist L. Alcopley and mathematician-artist Claude Berge member of the Oulipo literary group (2). But they were few and far between. They were often lonely professionals and marginalized by their peers. My father debated the problem with his friends such as C.P.Snow, Jacob Bronowski, Roy Ascott and Buckminster Fuller.

This year a group of colleagues and I have been developing a report funded by the US National Science Foundation and supported by the US National Endowment for the Arts, the SEAD White Papers Study (3). The study seeks to enable new forms of collaboration between the sciences, engineering, the arts, design and humanities, identifying opportunities and obstacles. It has been an exhilarating task working with a growing, dynamic and energetic community of practice. Artists are involved in all fields of science and engineering, from the health sciences to the nano-sciences, from digital manufacturing to space technologies. And they are working on the hard problems of our time where it is impossible to decouple culture from science  or engineering; climate change, the aging of the brain, sustainable energy.

The hybrids have arrived! From mixed teams of artists and scientists, to hybrid individuals with dual career tracks they are working in universities, industry and the burgeoning making and hacking spaces. In studying the demographics we were surprised that 20% of them are hybrids in the sense that they have both a higher education degree in science or engineering and a second diploma in a field of arts, design or humanities. (We also noted that the community of practice is gender balanced with 50% women and 50% men). These hybrids often play a special role as ‘translators’ able to navigate between the different ways of knowing represented by the sciences and the arts. Nature magazine (4) recently took note of the phenomenon, asking whether there were new hybrid career tracks emerging. They noted the recent development of PhD programs dedicated to the training and cultivation of these hybrids.

Physiologist and artist Robert Root Bernstein has recently studied hundreds of successful scientists and engineers; out of all proportion with the general population of scientists and engineers, and the public, they are hybrids participating in deep avocations in the arts that they view as essential to their own scientific practice. (5)

There are very good reasons to have disciplines and to train scientists and engineers to drill deep with a single minded focus. Art is not Science (6).But there are also good reasons to have mobile professionals who can navigate in trans-disciplinary practices. The good news is that the Tree of Knowledge has been felled and we now live in an evolving system of Networked Knowledge, enabled and accelerated by the internet and on line collaboration technologies. As Anthony Hill and Claude Berge would have told you, this is a topological revolution. It is far easier to make connections in complex network structures that are continuously evolving, than in tree structures that rigidify as they age (7). Unfortunately our institutions are still locked into the topology of old tree structures rather than complex networks and hybridity is still often a high risk activity.

I think my father would be thrilled at the turn of events. My father once wrote “It was my feeling that one way in curbing the misuse of technology might be if we could, through the arts, emotionally prepare young people to see the aesthetic, positive side of things and also then respond by seeing the negative” (8), Chastened by the human crimes committed using advanced science and technology during the second world war, he was convinced that the arts and sciences had to be connected at their very source, the human imagination and passions that drive scientific, engineering and artistic discovery. This emerging hybrid community is carrying within it the ideals of a socially robust science (9) that foregrounds not only ethics and values as core values in science and engineering but also celebrates with joy and pleasure the well-being of human beings in all their, non-reductive, complexity.


  1. There is a large literature on Frank Malina’s career in astronautics from co founder and first Director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, designer of the WAC Corporal rocket and co founder of the International Academy of Astronautics:
  2. I have recently co written a history of the Leonardo Journal that Frank Malina founded to champion the work of artists involved in science and technology:
  3.   The SEAD network is coordinated by Carol Lafayette; the SEAD White Paper Study is co chaired by Roger Malina and Carol Strohecker working with an international community of 200 professionals. The work of the network and the draft report can be found at:
  4. Interdisciplinarity: Artistic Merit, Virginia Gewin, Nature, 496, 537-539 (2013) doi:10.1038/nj7446-537a
  5.    Root-Bernstein RS, Lindsay Allen^, Leighanna Beach^, Ragini Bhadula^, Justin Fast^, Chelsea Hosey^, Benjamin Kremkow^, Jacqueline Lapp^, Kaitlin Lonc^, Kendell Pawelec^, Abigail Podufaly^, Caitlin Russ^, Laurie Tennant^, Erric Vrtis^ and Stacey Weinlander^.  Arts Foster Success: Comparison of Nobel Prizewinners, Royal Society, National Academy, and Sigma Xi Members.J Psychol Sci Tech 2008; 1(2):51-63.
  6. See the writing of my colleague Physicist Jean-Marc Levy Leblond, La science n’est pas l’art, Jean Marc Levy-Leblond, Hermann Editeurs, Paris 2010 ISBN 978-2705669409 “. My rebuttal is at
  7. See the Leonardo Project on the Arts, Humanities and Complex Networks:
  8. See
  9. See the work of European Research Council President Helga Nowotny, for instance

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